CroisiEurope may not be that well known in the U.K., but the French-owned line is one of the pioneers of river cruising and last year celebrated its 40th anniversary. It has a fleet of nearly 50 hotel barges and ships on rivers as diverse as the Rhine, Danube, Elbe, Po and Douro -- and further afield on the Volga and Mekong -- and later in 2017 the line is launching cruises in South Africa.
Many CroisiEurope cruises are booked in partnership with U.K. tour operators, so you may find yourself on a CroisiEurope charter, without knowing it in advance, if you book a cruise-tour package. In this case, you will generally sail with fellow Brits.
If you book direct with the cruise line there's a small chance you might be the only English-speaking passengers onboard, but if you have the right attitude, you'll still enjoy a rewarding river cruise experience.
There may well be other Brits onboard, or even Antipodeans, Americans and Canadians and if that's the case, the staff will seat English speakers together at dinner. If there are none, you can have your own table just for your party. However, if your language skills are up to it, there's no reason why you can't request to sit with other nationalities, who may well be speaking one of any number of European languages including French.
We got onboard the line's newest vessel, the Douro-based Miguel Torga, to find out whether a Croisi Europe cruise is right for English speakers.
Tours are generally conducted in French first, with the guide alternating between English and French. It's rare to find fluent guides who can be equally passionate about their subject in multiple languages so you may find the commentary a little rehearsed, but you'll still learn the key facts and stories associated with places visited. As you listen to the tour guides through the Vox Tour audio system, they will be regularly switching between French and English. With only a rudimentary understanding of French, thanks to a GCSE gained 20 years ago, I found myself zoning out during the French commentary and was slow to realise when the guide had started talking in English. I did find that language limitations affected the quality of the guiding experience for me, but of course that entirely depends on the individual guide and you may have one who injects more energy into their English commentary. Note: Depending on passenger numbers, some cruises have a dedicated guide for English-speaking passengers.
If you're looking for an economical river fare, you'll find pricing on Croisi is a good deal. It includes meals with beverages and an open bar, and since 2016, shore excursions (tips however are not factored in). Croisi keeps its prices down thanks to smartly designed deck plans that forgo suites in favor of double cabins. In a notable departure from tradition, Croisi only offers a single menu choice for its three-course meals at lunch and dinner, which also cuts down on costs (with advance notice, substitutions can be made).
If you like to cruise year-round and get off the beaten (river) track you'll be pleased to hear that unlike many of its competitors, Croisi offers cruises every month of the year, including themed cruises tagged to Impressionist art, the Christmas markets, hiking, World War I and, of course, food and wine. The line also has a robust mix of itineraries, ranging from two to 18 nights. Since its start in 1976, the family that owns Croisi has continued to pioneer new destinations and ship designs. In 2015, Croisi's Loire Princesse became the first river ship to offer overnight cruises on the Loire, France's longest river. The vessel was specially designed with paddlewheel technology that allows it to navigate the Loire's tricky waterway.
All onboard information is provided in English. You will find menus and descriptions of shore excursions in English on the TV screen in your cabin. The printed drinks menu in the lounge includes English translations. There is no printed menu in the dining room, but with a set menu on offer, you don't need it to make any decisions. When the ship is cruising, there is onboard commentary from time to time describing the area being passed through or the lock that the ship is about to enter, and there are occasional ship announcements, generally about disembarkation times. Both these will be in French first and then repeated in English. CroisiEurope says that all customer-facing staff speak English, but a few of my drink orders were lost in translation -- tawny port was delivered as tonic water and my sparkling wine had no bubbles. As drinks are included (unless premium specialities), this has no bearing on your bar bill, but it might become frustrating, particularly if you're gasping for a beverage!
The menus are unashamedly French, with a few Portuguese specialities for good measure. This wouldn't worry a Francophile and the quality is extraordinarily high for the price you pay. But a week of three-course lunches and four-course dinners might leave you craving a different type of cuisine by the end. And there's no choice, you get what you are given (unless you have ordered vegetarian in advance, but that is still only one choice). Fussier eaters could well struggle with the dining programme. There are no concessions to flatter British guests so you won't be offered PG Tips or see pie and mash on the menu.
If you're booking a CroisiEurope cruise, you should want that European experience. You should enjoy French food and the pleasure of fine dining paired with a good wine. An understanding of French would help but you can easily get by without, as all essential communications are made in English. To get the most out of this cruise and in order to interact with all fellow passengers, linguistic skills would be an advantage. This is definitely not a cruise for Brits who only want to mix with other English speakers. You'll enjoy it more if you are a linguist or you want to practice your language skills and if you have a desire to get to know our European neighbours. A bit of French flair goes a long way to making this a stand-out river cruise experience on the Douro.